With Death Snapping at Their Heels: Tales From Europe's "wild West"

Their lives were not captured on film but what they did and the memory of them will always be with us.

The thought has often crossed my mind that if the women and men who normally feature in these blogs of mine had been born in the US of A, we would have a filmography of unimaginable proportions dealing with the maquis and the guerrilla war. Unfortunately, they were nor born or raised in the USA and so we have no movies and but little history. We can cope with the latter if we can rescue them from oblivion, these folk who did stunning things even if they had no Hollywood behind them; they have bequeathed us stories and ideals that deserve to linger in the memory. And so today we shall follow in the footsteps of one of them – Miguel Sanz Clemente aka Chispita.

Miguel Sanz was born in Madrid in 1913. We know nothing of what he did during the civil war. In 1939 he went into exile and by 1943 was a member of the anti-Nazi Resistance. His earliest efforts on behalf of the resistance may well have been to set up a network, playing a part in it himself, helping French people who were dodging the STO (Compulsory Labour Service) that required them to work for the enemy, most often on German soil proper.

Settling in the Pyrénées Orientales with its capital in Perpignan, Miguel soon launched the so-called 1st Spanish Guerrillas Brigade, affiliated to the UNE. Although the UNE was supposedly an umbrella organization, it was essentially led by members of the PCE. Chispita was one of the members of the ACUN (The CNT grouping in the National Union) and he reached the rank of captain in the resistance. In fact, his unit was based in Coll del Jou and was under the command of Galiano, with Chispita as his second-in-command.

The 1st Brigade began operations in 1943. They started with propaganda, minor sabotage attacks and arms procurement. As they grew and armed themselves their operations too grew in scale and frequency. Thus, in July 1943, they could be found mounting an attack on a Gestapo vehicle, resulting in the deaths of its four passengers, three Germans and a French collaborator. That October one of the biggest collaborators in the area, Colonel Hers de Miquel,  found his home being bombed, and by the end of that year Chispita was a rising star in the guerrilla ranks and together with Rafael, he assassinated the head of the feared Le Boulou Gestapo.

The Brigade’s speciality was sabotaging power lines and railway tracks, firms collaborating with the Germans, or mounting raids on mine stores, making off with fuses and explosives.

Getting back to the movie-making imagery with which we began, whoever turned out to be John Ford would place his leading man against a mountain backdrop, puffing with satisfaction on a Lucky Strike cigarette. Not that wish to advertise the brand in question, but the epithet “lucky” fitted Miguel Sanz in the next episode of which we are aware.

We leap forward in time to May 1944. Together with a team of guerrillas Chispita was shipping weapons and munitions from Saint Laurens de Cerdans to a base on the slopes of Le Canigou. When the group arrived at the top of Pont de la Vierge, they were ambushed by a bunch of Germans under the command of a lieutenant. Ordering the rest of his men to press on with the shipment, Miguel took cover behind some boulders and used his submachine-gun to hold off the Nazis until the other guerrillas and the weapons were out of sight. He did his best to escape, loosing off bursts of gunfire and making a run for it but in the end he was captured after he ran out of ammunition.

He was taken to the Gestapo barracks in Prats de Molló, where he was heavily interrogated and tortured by the sinister German police. The choice was plain: he could “sing” or he would be put up against the wall. They beat him up but he refused to talk. So they brought him out to the edge of the town, intending to execute him. On some flat ground near the highway they formed up a firing squad and just as they were about to take aim along came the coach serving the Perpignan-Prats de Molló line and a couple of people alighted from it. The German officer did not want his exploits to be witnessed and he pause for a while. This was the “lucky” moment that should feature in our movie. Chispita seized his chance to jump the lieutenant, stripping him of his weapon, shooting at him and then, in spite of the beating, took off like a bat out of hell. Within hours he was back with his comrades, regaling them with his unlikely story.

Miguel served in his brigade right up until the Pyrénées Orientales department was fully liberated, including the city of Perpignan. At the end of the liberation he was awarded the Resistance Medal and the Croix de Guerre.

But lo and behold, once France had been liberated, It never occurred to Chispita to hang up his gun and have a well-deserved rest. Instead, he joined the units which headed south between September and October 1944, intending to poke Franco in the eye and take back a part of Spain. Naively, they believed that the Allies would follow them down and unseat the dictator. But nothing could have been further from the minds of those leaders. Here we shall let the protagonist speak for himself:

“I was indeed with the CNT Group of the National Union (ACUN) and as a staff officer I took part in the Valle de Arán operation, albeit that our unit made its incursion via the Roncal Valley. A hundred of us entered Spain. Nearly all veterans of the French resistance. Which may explain why we sustained fewer setbacks than other groups. We had barely set foot on Spanish soil before we took part in several clashes. Nearly all involving the Civil Guard. We could tell they were civil war veterans from the way they operated in the mountains and because of their bravery … The most violent clash we had were as soon as we entered: up in the Sierra de Uztárroz.”

Following the skirmishes with the Civil Guards and having weighed up the situation, they decided to split up into three teams of 30 men each, in an effort to slip through undetected.  Many of the guerrillas decided to turn back for France, having seen for themselves that things were not at all as they had been “sold” to them. Chispita, though, made up his mind that he was staying; not only that, but he decided to try to link up with the groups fighting Franco in the mountains in the interior. Again we shall let him speak for himself: 

“Via Navascués and Urriés, we made our way down to the Sierra de Santo Domingo. Yes, we had maps with us and two of our guerrillas were from that area … We did not run into any trouble since we did our walking under cover of night, taking all necessary precautions.”

After dispatching a courier back to France, the were ordered to head for the Maestrazgo massif, having failed to make contact with the guerrilla band operating in the Sierra Carbonera. Again, over to Chispita:

“We arrived in the Maestrazgo towards the end of November. The trek took us a couple of weeks as we had been forced to follow a roundabout route. En route, we had a few brushes with the enemy. And sustained several casualties. But we detected a lot less ferocity and aggression from the forces attacking us than we had run into in the Pyrenees. Once we reached the mountains the harrying actions stopped. Yes, the area where I operated was in the Maestrazgo, throughout. Albeit that I made a few visits to the Serranía de Cuenca and the Sierra de Javalambre …”

Miguel Sanz remained with the AGLA [Levant-Aragon Guerrilla Agrupación] from 1944 to 1949. During that time he made three trips back to France to make contact with the guerrilla leadership and three times he made his way back to the high country in Levante to carry on the fight.

“Whilst travelling around as a Technical-Trainer, I made the acquaintance of El Manco de la Pesquera. He struck me as very ‘get-up and go’ sort and he ruled the roost in his area … No, I never  had any great issues with the communists. Maybe because I was almost always dealing with the younger activists … To be honest with you, I will say that over the five years I fought with the Spanish guerrillas, in spite of all the intense and pretty well-organized propaganda we carried out within in the rank, I could pick up on the fact that loss of morale was on the increase in our ranks …”

To round off our entry for today, we should say that Chispita was seriously wounded in one of the clashes that occurred between the guerrillas and the Civil Guards throughout 1949. He was initially treated in Morella before being transferred to Barcelona where he was looked after by another old acquaintance of ours, Dr Joaquín Trías Pujol, the Galen of the anarchist guerrilla movement and the French resistance. As he was still in a delicate condition, he was then driven across the border into France, which quite possibly spared him from suffering the same fate as many of his comrades.

We know very little of Miguel’s life after he returned to France, although we do know that the French socialist government deported him and several others to Corsica and Algeria in 1950 after he was classified as a “dangerous activist”.

Although we do not know where he lived during quieter times or when and how he died and do not even have a photograph of the man, his record and memory will live forever.

Closing shot: our main actor, well up in years, stubs out a “Lucky Strike” in the ash-tray. He steps inside his humble abode, opens a drawer and takes out of the several pills prescribed for him. Before closing it again, the camera pans across and we can make out an old ACUN membership card and one of the AGLA propaganda leaflets.

“The End”


El Salto, 25 March 2021 https://www.elsaltodiario.com/ni-cautivos-ni-desarmados/con-la-muerte-en-los-talones.-cronicas-del-salvaje-oeste-de-europa

Translated by: Paul Sharkey.